Holly Bobo murder case returns to court, 7 years after a Tennessee man's conviction

SAVANNAH, Tenn. (AP) — Seven years after a man was convicted of killing nursing student Holly Bobo, the case has returned to the Tennessee courtroom where his intense, highly publicized murder trial unfolded.

With Bobo's parents sitting in the courtroom, a judge heard legal arguments Friday as part of an attempt by Zachary Adams to receive a new trial in the kidnapping, rape and killing of the 20-year-old Bobo, who disappeared from her rural home in 2011. Her body was found more than three years later, ending a massive search by authorities and her family.

Adams and two other men were charged with her kidnapping, rape and killing. But the only trial in the case was for Adams, who was convicted in 2017 on all charges and sentenced to life in prison plus 50 years.

The Tennessee Court of Appeals upheld Adams' conviction in 2022. But a sparsely used legal filing emerged this past January, when Adams asked a Hardin County judge for a new trial based on statements made by Jason Autry, a key trial witness who said he is now recanting the testimony that helped a jury convict his friend.

During the trial, Autry spoke in a calm, deliberative manner as an attentive trial jury listened to him recreate the day Bobo was kidnapped, raped, wrapped in a blanket, placed in the back of a pickup truck, driven to a river and killed.

Autry told the jury he served as a lookout as Adams shot Bobo under a bridge near a river.

“It sounded like, boom, boom, boom, underneath that bridge. It was just one shot but it echoed,” Autry testified. “Birds went everywhere, all up under that bridge. Then just dead silence for just a second.”

Investigators found no DNA evidence connecting Adams to Bobo. Instead, they relied on testimony from friends and jail inmates, who said Adams spoke of harming Bobo after she died. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said the investigation was the most exhaustive and expensive in the agency’s history. Witnesses painted a disturbing picture of drug life in rural West Tennessee and the trial featured high emotions: Bobo’s mother Karen collapsed on the witness stand.

Autry also was charged with kidnapping, rape and murder, but he received leniency for his testimony, which was praised by the trial judge as highly credible. Autry pleaded guilty to lesser charges, and he was sentenced to eight years in prison. He was released in 2020, but he was arrested about two months later and charged with federal weapons violations. Autry is scheduled to be sentenced later this year following his guilty plea in the weapons case.

Adams' brother, John Dylan Adams, also pleaded guilty to charges in the Bobo killing and was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

The new filing by Zachary Adams, known as a coram nobis petition, says Autry is now taking back his testimony, claiming he made up the story to avoid spending life in prison. For the petition to be successful, Adams must prove that he is presenting new evidence.

The petition said Autry met with a forensic neuropsychologist in December and admitted that he made the story up after his lawyer told him before the 2017 trial that he was “95% certain of a conviction” of charges in the Bobo case.

Autry claims he concocted the entire story in his jail cell before the trial while reviewing discovery evidence. Autry used extensive cellphone data to create a story, the petition says.

“He said he just recreated his day and ‘added Holly to it,’” the petition says.

Adams' lawyer, Douglas Bates, argued that a hearing to discuss Autry's recanting as new evidence should be granted. Prosecutors said Adams' petition should be dismissed without an evidentiary hearing.

Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Nichols, who also was the trial prosecutor, said the case has already been “thoroughly litigated." Adams has not provided new, specific evidence that Autry's testimony was false beyond “unsworn blanket statements,” Nichols wrote in court documents.

Nichols said Adams’ petition must be supported by sworn affidavits. Autry’s statements were presented to the court only in a video interview, which was sealed from the public.

Citing prior case law, Nichols wrote that recanted testimony is “looked upon with distrust." Nichols also said Adams would have been convicted even without Autry's testimony because other trial witnesses said Adams made “incriminating admissions” about his involvement in Bobo's death.

“Jason Autry was just one piece,” Nichols told Circuit Court Judge J. Brent Bradberry.

Bradberry said he will rule later on whether to grant the state’s motion to dismiss the case without an evidentiary hearing.